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Wenger plays strong hand but Arsenal A-listers are trumped by Bradford City's aces on unforgettable night
Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1
After extra-time, City win 3-2 on penalties
Football does not get better than this.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 will be forever etched in the Bradford City history books. Like Wembley '96, Molineux ’99, the David Wetherall diving header against Liverpool, Chris Waddle’s lob at Everton, this victory is assured of its place in the pantheon of Bantam memories.
Valley Parade’s biggest audience for over half a century can look back for years to come and utter those immortal words: We were there.
It was a privilege to witness a triumph that might have been secured – once again – via penalties but was forged on the stubborn never-say-die spirit that Phil Parkinson has instilled in the dressing room.
All the Arsenal big guns were there. Arsene Wenger might as well have gone the whole hog and wheeled out a cannon to blast away at the Bantams.
Wenger left nothing to chance with his team selection.
But the legendary professor must be getting absent-minded. He forgot that Bradford City circa 2012 never lose cup ties, they never lose at night and never lose when they score first...
Had Wenger known all that, maybe he would not have bothered turning up. His team certainly didn’t for much of the match.
But enough of Arsenal’s shortcomings. This was all about City, magnificent, unbeatable, unbreakable City.
For the eighth cup tie in ten, it went to extra-time. For the fourth occasion, it extended to spot-kicks.
And for the ninth time running, City’s nerves held in the 12-yard version of Russian roulette.
Even when sub Ritchie Jones spurned the chance to seal it, the penalty specialists weren’t going to blow up. And, true to form, they didn’t as Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen hit the post to unleash wild celebrations.
Wycombe were the last basement club to make it through to the semi-finals, going out to Chelsea in 2007.
Now, who knows, the Blues could lie in wait early in the new year. If they can get past Leeds next week.
City must wait until then to see who they will play in the semi-finals. Bring ’em on whoever...
If they can overcome a full-strength Arsenal, the likes of Chelsea, Aston Villa or Swansea should not cause too many sleepless nights.
Phil Parkinson named the same starting 11 from Saturday; Wenger was taking it equally seriously by unveiling a team of Premier League superstars.
The A-list line-up was a real show of respect for City – and also an indication of the pressure building on the Frenchman after a seven-year absence of any silverware. He dared not fail against a club supposedly 65 places their inferior.
Julian Rhodes had called for assistance from the wintry Yorkshire weather and the plunging temperature did its bit to level the playing field.
Nahki Wells almost took the roof off eight minutes in, muscling on to a bouncing high ball and shooting straight at Wojciech Szczesny.
Gervinho was booked for a Diego Maradona-style handball before Vermaelen nodded over from an Arsenal corner.
Stephen Darby played Lukas Podolski onside but the German wasted the free header teed up by Jack Wilshere.
Then suddenly the dream was on. Wells was flattened level with the box, Gary Jones’ free-kick was flicked on by Will Atkinson and Garry Thompson thrashed home a volley from six yards out into the roof of the net – pandemonium ensued.
Thompson, the last-gasp hero at Watford nearly four months earlier when City’s cup journey was in its infancy, had chosen some moment to open his Valley Parade account.
It nearly got even better as Arsenal’s defence continued to be at sixes and sevens. Rory McArdle flicked City’s first corner goalwards, where Kieran Gibbs frantically scrambled off the line.
Wells was relishing the big stage, Atkinson too, while Thompson went hunting for more with an acrobatic overhead attempt.
City’s discipline was superb. The harrying, chasing down and – most importantly – refusal to get sucked in by Arsenal’s passing game.
But there were still two big scares before the break.
First Francis Coquelin’s bouncing drive pinged back off Matt Duke’s left post. Then Arsenal found the extra man on the left but Gibbs’ inviting cross was completely missed by Gervinho with the City goal at his mercy.
Just as Arsenal were building up a head of steam, Hanson’s flick on sent Wells scampering again and the stadium held its collective breath as his poke past Szczesny rolled a couple of inches wide of the post.
The half-time whistle was greeted like a cup final winner and why not? City had certainly earned that accolade.
Wenger, hands thrust deep in pockets, had looked a picture of dejection. But if he imagined the home side would slip into their shell after the break, Thompson and Wells quickly put him straight with forceful attacking forays.
Arsenal broke quickly as Thompson lost possession lining up another shot. For a while they had a man advantage but Jack Wilshere’s shot flew harmlessly into the packed TL Dallas Stand.
James Meredith produced a crucial intervention on Gervinho and Coquelin whizzed an untouched cross along the six-yard box. There was lots of huff and puff as the Gallic frustration intensified on the touchline.
On came Tomas Rosicky, Marouane Chamakh and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who immediately forced a smart save out of Matt Duke.
Arsenal fanatic Alan Connell and Ritchie Jones replaced Thompson and Wells to give City’s determined resistance fresh impetus.
Wilshere, for once, slipped through the clutches of Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle but could not beat Duke from 20 yards as the clock slowly ticked down to less than ten minutes.
It was down to three, possibly less, when Arsenal broke through. A corner was half-cleared back to the taker Santi Cazorla and the Spaniard’s cross was rammed in at the far post by Vermaelen.
Arsenal had scrambled out of jail and looked to make their escape complete in stoppage time. But Duke had other ideas and beat out back-to-back Cazorla drives.
Extra-time was all about survival. Rory McArdle blocked from Chamakh, Duke smothered at Wilshere’s feet and kept out Gibbs, Gary Jones nodded out Bakary Sagna’s header.
Cazorla then rattled the bar from 25 yards at the start of the second period but City’s goal remained intact.
The pendulum swung with penalties. Suddenly it was the home side with the initiative given their incredible recent history.
They did not disappoint. Doyle, Jones and Connell all converted and Duke saved from Cazorla before Vermaelen failed at the death.
A game of this magnitude has been a long time coming – far, far too long – but boy, it was worth the wait.